One Crisis to the Next: The Looming Mental Health Crisis and How Community Can Help

May is the “Community” issue of the Fernie Fix and never has the idea of community seemed so topical and essential as it does now. This pandemic has become an ultra marathon and even if we can’t feel the effects of the stress acutely, it is undoubtedly chipping away at our defences and ready to rear its ugly head when we least expect it. We are just continuously moving forward, coping, taking each twist and turn as they come, and never really pausing to take stock of how this all must be affecting us. Fear, stress, uncertainty, grief, worry - these are all emotions that most of us have felt at one time or another (or even often) throughout these last several months and while we may have experienced them in the past, most of us have never had to cope with them consistently for this amount of time. 

We are one year in and we know with certainty that it is having an effect on our collective mental health. Women are leaving the workforce in droves due to an increase in their unpaid care (childcare, schooling, shopping, cooking, cleaning, etc.). In the U.S., 2020’s “Women in the Workforce” study revealed that 1 in 4 women are considering leaving the workforce due to the increased demands on their time secondary to the pandemic. These are not easy decisions and the impact of having to abandon your career in order to care for your family is one that will have clear ramifications on mental health and well-being. Beyond the impact on a personal level, this movement of women out of the workforce will have a global economical effect. The same study suggested that women in the workforce won’t get back to pre-pandemic levels until 2024, two years after men. 

New research from SickKids hospital in Toronto, Ontario shows that a large majority of children and youth have experienced harm to their mental health during the first wave of the pandemic (and we are now in the third wave). The increased stress of social isolation, including both the cancellation of important events and the loss of in-person social interactions was strongly associated with mental health deterioration. This shows up in the form of depression, anxiety, irritability, decreased attention span, hyperactivity, and obsessions/compulsions and 70.2% of school-aged (six to 18 years old) and 66.1% of preschool-aged (two to five years old) children report deterioration in at least one of these domains. 

33% of all healthcare workers and 77% of those who are in direct contact with patients affected by COVID-19 are self-reporting that their mental health is “fair” or “poor” in a survey completed by Statistics Canada at the end of 2020. Because healthcare workers are often seen as superhuman or as the caregivers and not the care-receivers, there can be a stigma on those admitting they struggle with their mental health. The impact of this stigma or fear of being stigmatized when 33% of ALL healthcare workers are struggling is staggering. 

Decreased productivity, increased pressure on health care systems, suicide, and domestic abuse are just a few of the potential results of the mental health crisis that is headed our way (or is already here). We may not have the power individually to solve a problem of this magnitude, but we can work towards solutions for ourselves and within our own community. Public health authorities and healthcare workers should see this as an eventuality and default in favour of mental health care for everyone, particularly those in high risk groups such as healthcare workers providing care in COVID-19 units. Everyone should not only have access to care but should be offered an assessment or a session with a mental health specialist to assess for risk and to make a plan for care. Our children and youth are resilient but they are less likely to self-advocate than adults are so ideally there should be routine counsellor visits scheduled for all students so that there is no stigma associated with seeing the school (or other) counsellor. 

As a community, we need to look after one another. We all have a role to play in the coming months and years as we finally get through and then begin to recover from the trauma that we have collectively and individually endured. A recovery plan that focuses on economy and health care without addressing and accounting for a post-pandemic mental health crisis will be incomplete and ineffective. We should put pressure on our provincial and federal governments to provide this care for us but we also have the power locally to make changes to support one another. While we are still in it and struggling with social isolation, check in with your neighbour/friend/child to see how they are and create an opportunity for connection. Take advantage of the improving weather to spend time together safely and outside, as restrictions allow. Being outside and especially exercising outside supports mental health beyond the benefits of being social and connecting with one another. 

As a healthcare provider, default to providing your patients/clients with mental health resources even if they don’t have a mental health-related complaint. Advocate for access to mental health services for you and your peers through public health. If you are a mental health provider, reach out to the different providers in the community, public health, and schools as appropriate to ensure that everyone knows how to access your care. Maybe consider small groups for specific populations. Everyone should be talking about mental health as it impacts ALL of us. 

First and foremost, start small and ask someone how they are doing today and when they respond, LISTEN. We can get through this, together.